Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Review: All the Light We Cannot See

Author: Anthony Doerr
Genre: Historical fiction
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)

Not all books can leave emotional aftershocks in their wakes. Not all novels possess a haunting two-edged beauty, the kind that offers a poignant balm right after inflicting a hundred little bruises on your heart. Not all stories can render you so weak-kneed with wonder that you have no choice but to let it brand itself as your literary waterloo.

Indeed, not all books are like All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr’s tour de force that reminded me of the very reasons why I still love trudging through contemporary literature.

The novel is a twofold tale of young souls ensnared in the horrors of World War II. On one hand it tells the story of blind French girl Marie-Laure LeBlanc, a museum locksmith’s daughter who joins the resistance and may be in possession of a dangerous jewel being hunted down by Nazi looters. On the other, it narrates the life of German orphan Werner Pfennig whose talent in radio mechanics wins him a place in a brutal academy for the Hitler Youth and in the battlefield as a resistance tracker. It is in war-torn Saint-Malo, France, that their paths converge.

I must admit that at first, All the Light We Cannot See felt like an impenetrable fortress to me. Doerr’s writing style deviates from the ones I have encountered before; it felt tad baroque and its chapters are cleaved in staccato sequences, making it a misfit among the tones of many twee bestsellers nowadays. But once I managed to adjust (possibly with the help of changing my reading environment from the chaos of rush-hour commute to pre-bedtime hush), going through the pages is as easy as dipping a hand into water. Since then, I could not remember finishing a passage without admiring its almost lyrical structure.

The imagery is so vivid that the heroine’s blindness does not appear to be an inconvenience at all. Every description would make you feel like the power of your senses, save the sight, is magnified a hundredfold. Here, Marie-Laure believes slices of peaches taste like “wedges of wet sunlight”; here, soldiers trapped in darkness for days tremble to catch a glimpse of starlight like they needed it to live, to breathe.

There’s dichotomy in it, too. The sentences might carry the exquisiteness of poetry but the grisly truths embedded in them uncover a kind of ugliness you would not want to look in the eye; it is war, after all. This is especially evident in Werner’s chapters. Descriptions fade out from the sunflowers’ “praying heads” to the piles of corpses cushioning prisoners’ train cars, from majestic breeds of birds to the bleeding bullet hole in the head of an innocent little girl. Doerr utilized his knowledge in just about everything—radios, diamonds, literature, avian species, puzzles, guns, locks—and stretched his spectrum of adjectives to bring clear pictures of WWII from two very different vantage points.

Plot-wise, the book unfurls slowly. The scenes do not always charge along with action, but the way Doerr cuts back and forth in time provides a steady supply of thrill and suspense. Doerr also managed to squeeze in a little fantasy-esque element that gave the story a hint of modernist flavor.

Its ensemble of characters showcased lifelike multidimensionality. More than flesh and bones, they are made up of layers of idiosyncrasies, fears, doubts, dreams, and hopes—the last two being undervalued commodities whose owners often get ridiculed. The leads are well-shaped. Instead of making Marie-Laure a walking magnet for sympathy, Doerr wrote her as an incarnation of strength and childlike hunger for adventure. Many characters recognize her courage and power despite her sightlessness, an assessment that she often seems to downplay.

Werner, my favorite, is a lithe embodiment of conflict-marred innocence. Marie-Laure may be the easiest to build emotional skeins with, but Werner for me still pops up as the most human. He is overflowing with dreams and hopes but the circumstances he is in caused apprehension to be an all-pervading disease in his system, making him clamp his aspirations down. He trades sheer compliance in their stead, in effect stripping him off the stereotypical brash hero mold. It is as if he stops believing he owns his life. Only when he crosses paths with Marie-Laure does he manage to wake up and convert all these thoughts, snagging a proper hero status in the process.

The combination of Marie-Laure’s unshakeable self-assurance and Werner’s meek surrender to austere rules does not only reflect a trait-masculinity swap, it also displays Doerr’s deftness in illustrating facets of the human heart and how fragile they are when faced with something that forces to alter them. The duo’s main attributes, including the chief changes in them, are captured in a piece of their brief conversation:
[Marie-Laure] says, “When I lost my sight, Werner, people said I was brave. When my father left, people said I was brave. But it is not bravery; I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?”
He says, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.”
I treasure this unconventional Boy-Meets-Girl moment unreservedly. More than five hundred pages and their meeting only lasted for what, a couple of chapters or so? It was not forced. It was short albeit magical, and the connections leading to that one moment is adeptly weaved by the author. It also reflects a grain of bittersweet truth in life: the universe might ink thousands of prologues and it will still hold no promise that your once-upon-a-time will last more than half-a-page, nor will it wrap up in a true happy-ever-after.

Aside from the two main protagonists, I have also grown to like Jutta, Werner’s precocious sister who intrepidly questions things about the important happenings in that era; and the German soldier Frank Volkheimer, who will probably tog off almost all items in a villain qualifications list except that he turns out to be a ‘friendly ally’ version of Goliath to Werner’s David. (I understand Volkheimer is taciturn by nature, but I wished the readers are given more glimpses of his insights!)

Just like the puzzles and miniature scale models of metropolises that Marie-Laure’s father constructs for her, All the Light We Cannot See’s intricacy is a beauty in itself. It is hard to put into words how enchanting the whole thing is. At the end, quick peeks at the present time answer some of the readers’ post-war questions—it shows that time can heal some wounds but it can offer no immunity when a memory decides to slice them open again; that language can be so inadequate when it brings up memories of the past; and that life is indeed worth living no matter what.

It has been a long time since I last read a gem as spellbinding as this; I will be sure to pick up more of Doerr’s other works. Five stars for an amazing read!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

My Giving Journal 2.0

The busy lot can see it from afar like a pack of mad buffaloes: the entrance of new year spells new sets of to-do’s, goals, and events. In order not to get lost in another chaos of e-reminders and the clutter of cheap sticky notes (which are universally known to betray their name when they somehow decide to pretend like leaves in autumn), I got myself a new planner. And just like last year, I got the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf’s Giving Journal.

CBTL’s 2014 and 2015 Giving Journal

May I confess something? CBTL’s 2014 Giving Journal is the first planner that I was able to use from start to end. My previous planners/diaries often get, say, neglected halfway through the year. I think there’s just so much going on with the Giving Journal that tied me to it to the end, particularly the way it encourages its owner to live a balance life through reflections, weekly habits, and challenges. This is contrary to a regular planner’s purpose of just focusing on ticking off every item in a to-do list. It proved to be very helpful considering that I did manage to improve some areas in my life (i.e. health and fitness) so I decided to get their 2015 edition.

I’m also a sucker for good designs! When I found out that last year’s journal resembles a coffee shop menu chalkboard—complete with its texture and white chalk smudges—I knew I just had to get it. This year’s journal is a little simpler than the last, but its minimalistic design is still appealing. Oh, and I always choose the brown ones. :)

A peek into my GJ-2015

I have started using my new Giving Journal after completing the twelve stamps I needed to acquire it. Here is the first calendar-panels spread of the planner, featuring the last three days of 2014 continuing to 2015:

For the curious, the doodle on the right-hand side is about my current “Doerr Hangover” as induced by Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light We Cannot See. The text contains lines lifted from the draft of my book review for it; the scribbled little boy there is my favorite character, Werner Pfennig. This year’s planner provides extra blank pages, so I think it is going to be a true-blue cross between a journal and an art book.

A peek into my GJ-2014

Another confession? Initially, the purpose of this post is so I can share some doodles and handwritten typography from my last Giving Journal. Unlike the previous years, I barely posted any art in 2014 so I thought about making up for it at the last minute. Then I figured it would not hurt sharing something about the journal itself, so that’s what I did. :)

Anyhow, I only included ones that are mostly lyrics from some songs that I have probably listened to while working or quotes that I use to encourage myself when I anticipate long, hard slogs in particular months. I have better drawings, but they contain a few info that I deem a little too personal to post here. Hope these ones will suffice!


From left to right, clockwise: a line from Gotye’s Somebody that I Used to Know; a line from Paramore’s Last Hope; a calendar panel showing my birthday; and a line from Automatic Loveletter’s Parker.


Above features a line from The Submarine’s song Sub-Symphonika; below is reminder of what my attitude should be on October, a rather busy month in our office.


I missed working on real art, and hopefully in the coming year I will be able to find the time to do just that. Happy new year, folks! *scoots out and tries to finish other year-end posts*

Review: The History of Love

Author: Nicole Krauss
Genre: Drama, contemporary
My rating: ★★★★(4 of 5 stars)

What started it all are the buzz and overflowing love it received from countless bookworms I know. The gushing accolades colored me curious and the recommendations kept coming, so I picked it up. I know I would be in for a different kind of read from the very first pages; the characters proved to be charm-on-two-legs in the maze-like structure of the story, and the story itself seem to tell the reader that it also has its own personality. Halfway through, I know it has built itself a special space in my heart. And that, my fellow readers, is my history of love for Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love.

The novel’s narration was cleaved into three: one following precocious fourteen-year-old Alma Singer and her journey to find the cure for her mother’s unhappiness, which she thinks lies in a certain book called (surprise, surprise!) The History of Love; one from the perspective of a lonely old writer named Leo Gursky who is trying to survive a little bit longer; and one detailing some kind of behind the scenes that provide catalysts that will cause the collision of Alma’s and Leo’s narratives.

There are so many things to love about this novel. I particularly enjoyed how the author crafted the character of Leo—he is as hilarious as he is heartbreaking. I remembered moments where I am not so sure if the tears stinging my eyes were caused by joy or sympathy, and I’m commending the author for that. Alma, on the other hand, talks a lot like a nosy kid who is always ready for an adventure. She is the proof that Krauss carries a talent in characterization, as she is able to fully provide two distinctive, believable voices that can tug at the heartstrings of their audiences.

I also like the existence of Leo’s The History of Love as a book within a book, and I could only wish it exists in real life too. As usual, only small parts of it are offered in the novel. It contains chapters describing an imaginary albeit cute chronicle of human affection, consisting of ''The Age of Silence,'' during which people communicated only by gesture; the “Age of Glass,'' when ''everyone believed some part of him or her to be extremely fragile”; and ''The Age of String,'' when ''it wasn't uncommon to use a piece of string to guide words that otherwise might falter on the way to their destinations.'' All women who pop up in these vignettes are named Alma, named after the girl that Leo loves, and who is also (obviously) the namesake of our little heroine.

To be quite honest, there is not much to say about the storyline. It unfolds like an origami containing a secret message, one whose main contents you already know but you still want to see because you know it will contain surprises that only a writer like Krauss could concoct. When these surprises finally sprang to greet me, they proved to be so emotionally wrenching that I cannot help but stop for a while and breathe.

My favorite parts are near the end, where each alternating chapter becomes short strings of quotes and glimpses into the minds of Alma and Leo as they begin to meet. The ending is subtle, peaceful, but ultimately meaningful.

Four stars for a satisfying read!